Magnetic North Blog
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Marking 21 years of Magnetic North
We've commissioned some of the artists we have worked with over the years to contribute something to mark our 21st anniversary. Each has contributed something connected to their work with us and received a small fee. Every week we'll add a new commission to this blog post.
Pass the Spoon, a 'sort-of opera about cookery' from 2011 was a collaboration between me, Nicholas Bone and the visual artist David Shrigley. Nicholas and I had wanted to make something together for a few years and had already adapted a short story by Peter Carey for Scottish Opera so we approached David together. I don't think any of us could have foreseen what we would end up with a couple of years later. I look back on it now as easily the most fun I’ve had in a collaborative situation.
This recording is taken from rehearsals where I was trying to teach The Egg Song to the actor Gavin Mitchell. I ended up transposing the song into a much lower key for the show when I found out that Gavin had an incredible basso profundo range but what you hear is my wispy tenor.
The words are by David Shrigley. Seems kind of fitting just now…
It’s not like it was.
The magic is gone.
My yolk is congealed.
I’ve been dropped once too often.
I am boiled.
I am fried.
I am scrambled.
There’s shell in the omelette.
I can’t stand it.
This is a story from Stories from Here, our most recent collaboration. It is one of many true stories gathered as part of the ‘Here' project in various cities across North America over the last few years. Although ‘Here’ wasn’t developed from the outset with Magnetic North, their influence is riddled throughout. As with so many of our works, it might not have happened at all if it hadn’t been for inspiring conversations with Nicholas scattered over the years. This contribution succinctly represents the shared fascination at the core of our collaborations - which has been there from those first conversations over terrible lunches at Cove Park - relationship to place.
The memory of A.
When I lived with my grandma in Tacoma Washington, I was sad because my mom had gone to jail, and two of my sisters stayed in Lawrence.
I felt like a burden to my aunt and grandma, so I tried to do things on my own. I would get yelled at a lot because of this, because they didn’t understand why I wanted to be independent. They wouldn’t understand why I was sad, so instead they made me start on a bowling team. I hated it most of the time - I sucked at bowling.
I had been really sad specifically one day, because my mom had been avoiding my calls once she had gotten released. I cried all day at school, and decided to skip bowling practice. It was a very warm sunny day for April, I walked home, up a large hill on Sixth Street, and turned on Ainsworth, where my Grandma lived. (She hated being called Grandma, so I called her Meme)
I went to the side door instead of the front, because the railings were full of Ivys and I loved Ivys. I tried to open the door but it was locked, my Meme had a lock she could only use from her phone, and never gave me the password. So I was locked out.
Last time I had tried to scale the balcony up top, I scared her neighbors, the nice neighbor who was kind of nosey and made good Guacamole, called the cops. Honestly I thought it was overkill, they should have known who I was. I wonder why she didn’t call the cops this time.
I had to wait until 7 for my Meme and Auntie Nina to come home. I decided to take a nap on the small raised platform in front of the side door. The sun was really bright, It smelled like honeysuckles, and I remember seeing plants woven through the railings. I even saw an English Ivy plant that my Meme had tried to cut down, because it grew into the windows. I know I shouldn’t have been happy, but I was. Eventually I fell asleep in the sun on the top platform beneath the door. I lay on my back and closed my eyes, I could see the red behind my eyelids and swarms of white blood cells. At the time I didn’t know what the swarming masses behind my eyes were, so I thought I was seeing the atoms that made me.
I didn’t dream about anything, but I woke several hours later to the sound of the lock on the side door clicking, everything looked a tone of blue for some reason. I entered the empty house and fell asleep on my bed. Meme’s house always smelled like wax and dust.
This song is from a piece I’m working on about a community trying to heal after a scandal. It was sung by the leader of this community, a man who expressed himself primarily through song. This is one of his melodies that often comes to mind when I’m thinking of this piece.
Hanna Tuulikki's Deer Dancer is a cross-artform project investigating deer mimesis within dance from across cultures. The work examines how the imitation of deer behaviour constructs 'wilderness' as the site for the cultivation of hetero-masculinity and how hunting mythologies impact real ecologies. Deer Dancer was first presented as an audiovisual installation at Edinburgh Art Festival 2019, and will be developed into a live performance in 2021. At the heart of the work are five fictional hybrid stag-men characters: Monarch, Warrior, Young Buck, Fool (below) and Old Sage. The drawings depict early costume designs.
I’ve been part of the Magnetic North community since 2007 in the first Rough Mix. Looking for material for this film I found footage of an Arctic expedition and in it a man calling through a megaphone. I immediately thought of Nicholas Bone, calling artists to action, leading us with his deep knowledge of collaboration, his wry wit and his unremitting curiosity. I hope the film speaks to the imagination, joy and sense of adventure that in my experience always drives the company’s work.
THE MAGNETIC NORTH
We live on a small island and most of it is crummy (apart from the bits on Tripadvisor). We go about our business, thinking small crummy thoughts, like “What’s for tea?” and “I think I left the iron on”. And then we die. But before we croak, we look back on the good bits - the highs, thighs and sparkly eyes we met along the way. We snuggle up to those cosy memories with a warm crumpet glow. This is one of mine:
So there I was, two-thirds through a life of intermittent weather. All the usual veteran stuff, “Been there, bought the T-shirt and had it stolen”. You get the idea, I’m a grump.
I earn my living as a writer, so spend my days trawling the net for commissions, the literary equivalent of Tinder. Then one day, I’m flicking through the flotsam and jetsam and BANG, there it was, a twinkly little ad and singing from it, like a freakin’ canary, was my favourite word, “Residency”. That word, it’s like an oasis, a mirage, a posh spa for the mind. A writing residency is the holy grail for jaded hacks like me, who've been running on empty for years. That’s not because I’m all burnt out, it’s because writing is tough.
Weeks later, I heard a sound. That sound was PING. Something had plopped in my inbox, “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted….” I sighed and smiled, the first of many highs.
I got on a train that went up, up, left then up. With every mile, the landscape got bigger. Bulgy bits (called hills) rose up out the ground. Endearing Scottish children stood by the tracks and waved a cheery wave (I lied about that last bit). Then the train track ran out and I found myself face-to-face with a Loch, a huge God-size puddle. I boarded a boat and stood on deck, squinting into the mist. In my white flapping shirt, I looked every inch the romantic hero, my tousled hair blowing in slow-motion (I have also lied about this bit, I just looked fat and cold). Anyway, it was genuinely, intrepid, though less so for the locals who travel that way every day.
I have to admit I was nervous. All writers are hermits so the idea of shacking up with a bunch of strangers made me feel a bit anxious. I’m an anxious person already, so think “double-anxious”. What if they snore? What if I snore? What if they’re all horrible people? And worst of all, I’d given up alcohol, so had nowhere to retreat, except the writers retreat.
I needn’t have worried. The welcome was so warm, it made me think, “These people are nicer than some of my friends”, which is worrying. There was food, fire and everyone was nice (in a non-boring way). I got a room on my own that overlooked a plus-size hill. Was it a Munro? Was it a mountain? Who gives a toss, it’s a whopping great hill, the shape of Dairylea Cheese.
One of the hosts was called Nick, a quiet man who intrigued me. He ‘sat’ well, which is a funny thing to say, but he did. When most people sit, they look like a bulgy lump slumped in a chair but Nick had elevated the ‘sit’ into an art form. Wherever he sat, he looked like an Observer double-page spread, the hill-things behind… the vast landscape of his brain. I liked him enormously. Still do.
One by one, the shy participants revealed who they were, unveiling their warm backstories and cool credible lives. One woman (a dancer) stuck some Post-It’s on the glass. They said “Working Class, West Coast”. How brilliant is that? A whole life summed up in four little words - she’s a better writer than I am!
One day, Nick took us all for a walk, like a bunch of puppies. He took us to a secret garden whose owner had just died (it’s a public space, we didn’t just sneak into some dead guy’s house). Anyway, Nick asked us to walk slow, looking at every detail down to the absolute minutiae. As a cynical, urbane, preoccupied person, it’s not the type of thing I normally do, but hey, it was great. I felt at one with nature. Afterwards, I stood by the loch / lake / whacking great puddle-thing and stared into the grey. It felt profound. It’s a profound colour that looks much better on a 360’ landscape than it does on a Dulux pot (where it would be called ‘Warm Pewter’ or ‘Bowler Hat’).
Day by day, I found myself slowing down, thinking deep thoughts, like, “Who am I?” and “What’s for supper?” I found myself asking myself, “What am I trying to say?” and is “finding myself asking myself” even a sentence? I found myself listening instead of talking, which was a huge relief as I don’t half drone on. And I found myself…. …. …. ….
I didn’t see it coming. The big revelation. We’d talked a lot about ‘finding your own voice’. It’s the kind of thing you do on a writer's retreat, but for me, it’s always felt a tad self-indulgent, which is a cynical view, I know. When the truth is, I’ve been a full-time writer since the last century so ‘finding my voice’ isn’t self-indulgent at all. It’s a rusty old tool that’s in dire need of sharpening. And then it hit me. The big, “Who am I?” And the result surprised even me…
I’m not a cynic, I just put on a front. I’ve done it since I was a kid, so I wouldn’t get bullied but underneath (and don’t tell a soul) I’m actually quite sweet.
I’m not going to say I discovered ‘my feminine side’ because that casts women as soppy when we all know they’re not - but there is a certain aspect of the female intellect that I relate to more than my own.
I grew up rough, failed my English O-level and used to live on a building site - but my writing voice is that of a quiet, intelligent and articulate woman, with my true voice lying somewhere in between. Sexually I’m straight but in terms of text, this trans-like revelation was a true eureka moment and I am incredibly grateful for Magnetic North for helping me find my voice.
I arrived as a crudely-hewn chunk of rock, that had rolled down from the mountain. I left with the voice of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, so it’s apt that I left on a train.
I still can’t quite ‘get’ why Magnetic North were so kind. They welcomed me as a stranger and I left as a friend. They valued all the secret things that make up my career, the ramshackle bunch of tools and half-formed words that I use to communicate what it is to be human, what it is to be me. Magnetic North gave me food, shelter, warmth, time, space, help, money, a short blast of education and a moment of peace in the world. How humbling is that?
I wrote them a blog, comparing myself to an old postal van that they had just serviced, so it could go back to serving the community for many years to come. It’s a fitting metaphor, as there’s a modesty to what Magnetic North do that belies the depth and importance of what they achieve.
I am proud to be part of the Magnetic North family. It is a brilliant organisation and if they were running the country, it would be a kinder place. They don’t just inspire, they take that inspiration and run with it, bringing it to life in three-dimensions. They spend so much time helping others to bloom, I want them to bloom. I want to see their productions, their work, their heart spilling out onto the stage. If I could sum up my feelings in three little words, they would be, “Fund them, now!”
Magnetic North: they draw me north like a magnet.
Magnetic North's Artist Development programme is unique within the UK. One of the most important principles of the programme is that it is open to any artist, which means paying artists for their time. Without this financial support, many artists could not afford to take time away from their work. A financial donation from you would help us do more. We think that continuing artist development is a vital part of maintaining a thriving creative culture. If you would like to make a donation to support this work, please visit our support us page.